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Here are the real villains of the Steve Bartman game

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The Cubs famously blew a 3-0 lead with five outs left in the 2003 NLCS. Say, whose fault was that anyway?

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

First disclaimer: I've been writing notes for this article for a week. I didn't actually think the Cubs would get a 3-2 advantage before Game 6 of the National League Championship Series. I am so, so, so sorry. Kind of.

Second disclaimer: I know everybody else is going to have a retrospective of this game now, but I have no choice. This is a baseball writer’s "Hallelujah," and just because everybody else has covered it, that doesn’t mean I don’t get to.

Third disclaimer: I've always wanted to write about the Bartman game. The gravitational pull of the despair and WTF-ery has always sang a siren's song.

Cubs fans are right to close the tab if they want. There might be some catharsis or self-flagellation in it for you, or this might be the trial by combat that you absolutely need. The Red Sox had to walk through the Yankee fires of 2004 to evolve into what they became, and it wasn’t a lot of fun while it was going on. But it was worth it.

Sadly, the most important reason to rehash this is that there are some who live among us on the Baseball Internet who were in the first grade when this game happened. People who are married, with kids, might have been in junior high, blissfully unaware of what happened. There’s a generation that knows only about that fan with the headphones as a synecdoche for everything they’ve ever heard about the Cubs.

We’ll explore the villains of Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS, then, and build to the crescendo of who was really the most responsible party. At the risk of ruining the suspense, it’s not the poor guy whose life was ruined. He was but a bird sucked into the Cubs’ windmill-powered hell dimension.

Warning: This is one of the most painful innings of baseball you will ever watch. It is not for the weak.

The YouTube thumbnail accidentally nails my thesis, but we’ll get to that. If you’re not familiar with the setup, it goes something like this:

  • The Cubs are five outs away from their first pennant since 1945
  • They have their best pitcher on the mound
  • Nothing could possiblie go wrong

You know what? Just close the tab. Let the Cubs keep this lead, just this once. Go, do something else.

Minor villains

Kyle Farnsworth

Ol’ Kyle had a thankless job, being told to walk into the middle of a jackpot and save a season after most of the damage was done, especially when the first thing he was told to do was walk a batter intentionally. He gave up a sacrifice fly to the next batter, and that run is hardly his fault.

Except if Farnsworth kept the game close, there’s a chance the Cubs do something in the bottom of the inning. They wouldn’t have been nearly as demoralized.

Instead, he threw two kinds of pitches: breaking balls that weren’t within a foot of the strike zone, and string-straight fastballs right down the middle.

That was all he had. The first one, the sac fly to give the Marlins the lead, wasn’t so bad. With 95 behind it, it might have even been optimal. The second one is how a 35-year-old Mike Mordecai, with six extra-base hits all year, gets to clear the bases with a double.

Again, not his fault. He could have thrown fastballs that awful at the start of the inning, and it wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the game. Just a couple of runners on with a three-run lead, big deal. He had wiggle room.

Farnsworth didn’t help, though. And he also gave up the lead in Game 7, which turned this game from a curiosity to a watershed moment in sports-disappointment history.

Luis Castillo and Juan Pierre

Just for being themselves. I don’t know if there’s a proper comp in today’s game for the youngsters. Billy Hamilton, if he were a little slower and a .300 hitter, and there's two of him? Castillo and Pierre combined that season for 1,423 plate appearances. They were always up. Always, always, always. They combined for 391 hits and 86 stolen bases. They also combined for about one Kyle Farnsworth, give or take. They fouled off approximately 73,021,488 pitches that season, so of course that’s who the Cubs had to get out when their tired pitcher's reserve tanks were filled with wishes and sugar water.

Castillo and Pierre didn’t do anything wrong, mind you, other than be themselves. But let’s not forget that it all started with these two getting on base. They were an eternal fountain of limitless irritation, and I kind of miss them.

RadioShack

RadioShack’s incompetence probably wasn’t responsible for the Cubs’ demise through osmosis, but it’s at least worth considering. And it’s an excuse to link to maybe the finest piece of literature ever published on this website.

Tragic characters

You

Yes, you. Because you would have done the same damned thing.

This guy. This guy in the gray jacket right here. This guy is you. And you were both lucky to walk away, whistling, free to go about your lives.

I’m not sure how many baseball games you’ve attended in person, but I’ve been to hundreds. And you know what happens at those games? Baseballs don’t get hit to you. You sit there, and you watch baseball, eat a bunch of crap, and go home without a baseball ever getting hit directly at you. Every 20th time or so, there will be one that comes in your section, and everyone will talk about it for the next half-hour. What you were thinking? The flight of the ball. The flash of realization that it was going to come close.

But a baseball probably won’t get hit right to you.

However, I’ve caught a foul ball. It was popped up, and I had time to think. Those thoughts went roughly like this:

That ball looks like it’s coming toward me.

That ball looks like it’s coming toward me.

That ball is coming toward me.

That ball is coming toward me.

I haven’t caught a baseball since high school.

I haven’t caught a baseball since high school.

That ball is almost here.

Subconsciously, you’re wondering about one of the idiots around you nudging your face directly into the path of the ball. It’s one thing to get a chance to catch a wee meteor, but it’s another thing to trust the drunken shells of anarchy surrounding you.

Add to this the poor guy wasn’t exactly sitting at field level. He couldn’t reach out and grab a fistful of warning-track dirt, so why would he be worried about someone jumping off the warning-track dirt and into him? That means he’s thinking "That ball is coming toward me" without a thought in the world, other than the ball.

He's wearing a mitt, you know. He's so ready, so eager. There's a flash of realization.

"Dear Catching Baseballs Forum, I never thought it would happen to me, but ..."

Please save your opinions on grown-ups with baseball mitts for another time. That’s for the offseason.

Steve Bartman

No, not entirely blameless. But while I’m not going to blame the Cubs for his actions, I’ll blame the culture of Major League Baseball for any future fan-interference failings.

Here’s what it takes to prevent moments like this in the future: Every team in baseball making a big deal about fans who give players room to make the play. A player like Alou goes up. Fans make a concerted, obvious effort to back off. The play is or is not made. The team sends an employee down with jackets or tickets or autographs. The crowd applauds at the fans' restraint. The TV cameras linger on the scene for a half-beat.

This applies to pop fouls, homers at the fence, and doubles skipping down the line. Something like that happens, what, once every couple games, if that? Yet, teams waste their jackets, tickets, and autographs on "Name That Movie!" games or whatever on the scoreboard between innings.

Change the rewards that come with having a chance to touch a baseball. Instead of fans thinking that they’ll be out a souvenir if they don’t follow their basic instincts, they’ll think "I’M GONNA GET ME SOME TICKETS. BACK THE HELL OFF, EVERYBODY."

Change the culture. Let this be an example.

I expect your vote in the baseball commissioner primaries in four years.

Also, if you’re at the game and a ball is coming toward you in front-row seats, you should probably know better, especially now. Bartman isn’t entirely blameless. Just human.

Villains

Fox’s production team

After every play, every damned play, they would replay the non-catch. After an error. After a hanging slider was ripped for a double. After a wild pitch. After a commercial. Back and to the left. Back and to the left. Back and to the left.

Playing it once? Maybe twice? It would have become a thing. Maybe a big enough story that some intrepid reporters would have ventured into the stands to find the guy. But the replay was played over and over again, pure propaganda for the idea that this one fan cost the Cubs the game. It was devastating. And it was cheap.

(Fourth disclaimer: These qualified professionals are making snap judgments based on what they think people will want to see, and there isn't a lot of time to convene a panel on the matter. Just saying that with the power of hindsight, it seems excessive.)

Alex Gonzalez

He's almost an afterthought. It’s amazing. But instead of this being the Alex Gonzalez Game, it was the Steve Bartman Game. That doesn’t make an ounce of sense. Imagine the Bill Buckner Game being the Herbert Franks Game because of an unrelated foul pop two batters before. Ludicrous. It would have been destined to be the Bill Buckner Game the entire time. At least, it should have been.

You got lucky, Herbert. You got lucky.

The play (11:50 in the above video) wasn’t a tricky hop. It wasn’t hit hard at all. There was no chance for a double play, so it wasn’t rushed. It was just the purest of boots, a play that Jon Lester could have made with his glove on the wrong hand.

Gonzalez had 625 chances that year and 10 errors. That had to be the dumbest of them all.

And he's an afterthought.

Dusty Baker

These power rankings are flawed power rankings, for Dusty Baker takes the top three spots. I love the man, and I still give him a standing ovation when he rolls through my ballpark, but good gravy was he eating mushrooms on Europa during this entire inning.

Start with how Prior was used that year. It’s not fair to criticize Baker for how he manages the Nationals, because he’s heard the criticisms and adjusted his managing accordingly, but he really did grind Prior into dust that year. If you copied Prior’s pitch counts and pasted them into 2016, his September starts alone would have ranked first, third, fourth, fifth, and six in pitches thrown this season.

Again, those were just the September starts of a 22-year-old pitcher in his first full season, right before he hit the extra month of the postseason.

It was a different time, so let’s be understanding. So, you’re a manager at the turn of the millennium, and you don’t care so much about pitch counts. Fine. What are you looking for, then? Certainly not cartoonish wisps of smoke. Certainly not a pitcher admitting that he’s tired.

You’re looking for tired pitches. And once Pierre and Castillo reach, a manager has to be looking for them. I don’t begrudge Baker leaving Prior in after those two because they hit over .300 for a reason, and Prior was his ace, still throwing a shutout.

Baker had to be thinking about a tired pitcher, though. He had to be wondering about Prior. The pitching coach went to the mound for a chat ...

CUT TO: Replay of fan interference

... maybe to buy some time in the bullpen, maybe to give his pitcher a breather. But the manager’s job right there is to watch for signs of fatigue, especially if he isn’t going to give a rip about pitch counts (114 at that moment).

Here’s the first pitch Prior threw to Pudge Rodriguez, a power hitter who represented the tying run.

I have no idea if it was supposed to be a changeup or a slider, and it makes me want to sleep for a week.

The next pitch was away from the target and down the middle, at 92 mph, which is a slower fastball than Prior normally throws. "Oh no oh no oh no," I’d think. "Keeping him in is the worst decision I’ve ever made." Rodriguez swung through it, but it was still an alarming pitch.

The final pitch of the at-bat was a hanging 0-2 slider in the middle of the strike zone. It was ripped for a single. But that’s all. Just a single. The Cubs were still 79 percent favorites to win the game. Bullet dodged.

Baker left Prior in for two more batters.

I still can’t fathom it. Prior had nothing. He was worked hard all year, and he was worked especially hard in September. In his first game of the postseason, he threw 133 pitches. He threw 116 pitches the game before this one. If you’re not going to count pitches, look for the fatigue.

Not putting away Pierre or Castillo? Be skeptical. Hanging that meatball to Rodriguez? Be terrified. After the error to load the bases, which would put extra stress on the tired pitcher? Get him out. It’s not even ... I mean ... get him out ... just ... please ...

I don’t think I’ll ever watch the inning again. It messes with my blood pressure, and that’s not a writer using creative license. It seriously bothers me.

That’s all with the benefit of hindsight, sure. We know how important it is for pitchers to stay away from the third and fourth times through the order now, but that wasn’t a widely expected sabermetric maxim.

And there’s that part where Farnsworth got singled out earlier in the article, which reminds you that he was the next line of defense. A tired Prior vs. a rested Farnsworth wasn’t the most obvious decision. Baker wasn’t bringing Mariano Rivera into the game.

Still, I watch that inning and Prior missing with everything to Rodriguez, and I think "What if?" a heckuva lot more than I do with the Bartman play. What if Baker pulled him like all 30 managers would have today? What if Baker were just a little forward-thinking back then, just enough?

The most important thing to take away from the inning, though, was that it was a tornado of awful choices and execution. It shouldn’t be blamed on one fan.

Most of it shouldn’t be blamed on one fan. If that fan doesn’t exist, Mark Prior is still unconscionably tired. That doesn’t change.

It’s Game 6 for the Cubs in the NLCS again. I don’t know about you, but this got a lot off my chest. We’ve seen similar hellstorms since this game (won’t list them out of respect), but only one of them had a person’s name attached to it incorrectly.

It is henceforth to be known as the Good Lord Take Him Out What Are You Doing Ahhhhhh Game, not the Steve Bartman Game. We will also accept the Alex Gonzalez Game, but the GLTHOWAYDAhhhhhhh is the official name now. Thank you for your cooperation, and I’m sorry that this exists.

Just know that exactly none of the current Cubs would ever care about a single word.